Online forum: the social journey

With the explosion of user-generated content online, ‘word of mouth’ recommendations have taken on new levels of meaning for travel and tourism

Social media is the glue that binds the holiday experiences of millions of travellers around the world: they find inspiration on Pinterest; send out calls for advice on Twitter; hunt down deals on TripAdvisor; voice their dissatisfaction on blogs; try living with the help of AirBnB; and use Facebook to boast about their experiences.

Travel and tourism are high value, reasonably high-risk product categories to buy but unlike designer clothes, techie gadgets or cars, you can’t try them on, test them out or see what they look like in a showroom. The next best thing to experiencing something first hand is the recommendation of a trusted peer or friend.

With the advent of social media, the views, experiences and opinions of millions of travellers - be they friends or simply like-minded strangers - have changed the holiday experience forever. Brand USA, the marketing arm of the most visited tourist destination in the world, is one business that has migrated with its customer onto social media. As well as a core focus on Twitter and YouTube, Facebook sits at the centre of its strategy.

“Creating a place where people can be inspired about travel ideas and facilitate their connection with other travelers like themselves is a highlight of our Facebook page,” explains Chris Thompson, CEO of Brand USA. “We provide the inspiration and our community helps to inform each other about local insights, attractions and experiences.”

Tapping into that sense of a kinship is at the heart of consumer reviews portal TripAdvisor. “Whether a traveler is looking for the best luxury hotel of 2013 or the most romantic island for their honeymoon, they can find it on TripAdvisor,” comments the brand’s chief marketer Barbara Messing. “With the combination of review content and our hotel price search feature, travelers easily identify the perfect hotel for their trip, and the best way to book it. And, when they return from their vacation, they are eager to share reviews and tips.”

With its famously superlative architecture, super luxurious hotels and indoor ski slopes with real snow and penguins, uber modern Dubai is not short of an alluring profile. With plans to double tourist numbers to 20 million by 2020, the government is keen to leverage the power of social media to share it with the wider world.

The response is the #MyDubai initiative, launched recently on Twitter and Instagram by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai. Advocating that the best marketers of a city are the people who live in it, citizens are encouraged to upload compelling images of the emirate. “We will launch a number of projects throughout the year under the #MyDubai banner,” explains HE Helal Saeed Almarri, Director General of Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM). “All of which will both encourage residents to be tourists in their own city and will highlight why Dubai is now the seventh most visited city in the world.”

For travellers planning a trip and making informed decisions about destinations, accommodation, restaurants, tours, and attractions, sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Wiki are unparalleled. They are also a vital part of the picture for the tourism industry, skilfully using each platform to maximise levels of engagement with their customer base. Both have embarked on a fascinating journey of discovery.